In February 2019, the impact of public integrity concerns on electoral processes was highlighted by the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria on 27 February, following a campaign under the theme of the fight against corruption. Permeated by tensions, the presidential election of the most populous country in Africa was marked by suspicions of corruption, criticism of existing mechanisms for promoting probity, and promises of reforms. In many respects it recalls other elections in El Salvador, Moldova or Brazil, which were also characterized by allegations of ethical misconduct and commitments to the moralization of political life.
Indeed, corruption scandals involving public officials can play a pivotal role in an election because they discredit candidates and their parties, erode citizens’ trust in their representatives, and thus may contribute to challenging the democratic system. As a result, civil society organizations warn about the consequences of probity breaches, both on abstention, which is constantly growing, and on the increasing success of populist and anti-system leaders. In its annual report, published on 4 February, the NGO Freedom House notably recommended that measures be taken to enhance transparency and prevention of conflicts of interest in governments. According to the NGO, these measures would prevent foreign interests from unduly influencing public decision-making and rigging the democratic game. These recommendations came a few days before the parliamentary hearing of Michael Cohen, the former lawyer of Donald Trump and prosecution witness in the investigation into suspicions of collusion between Russia and the U.S. President’s campaign team.
In this context, integrity and transparency policies appear as possible solutions to current challenges. To be effective, these policies must be implemented consistently and rigorously, beyond electoral deadlines, by strong institutions that exercise their missions with independence, impartiality, and objectivity. Even though elections are key moments in the life of the state, rightly attracting the attention of society, and even if the political will of elected representatives remains crucial, the diffusion of a culture of integrity is a long-term endeavor that requires daily decisions, vigilance and efforts.
INTERNATIONAL AND MULTILATERAL
On 14 and 15 February, more than 40 international experts from governments, sports organizations, the private sector and academia gathered at the headquarters of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to discuss mechanisms for the detection and reporting of ethical misconduct and acts of corruption in sport. On the basis of these exchanges, UNODC and the International Olympic Committee will develop a manual to assist relevant stakeholders to put in place effective warning mechanisms.
As part of the 5th evaluation round on preventing corruption in central governments and law enforcement agencies, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) released its report on the Netherlands on 22 February. It recommended the establishment of a code of conduct for top executive officials. GRECO also indicated that these officials should be required to report situations of conflicts of interest as they occur and that they should be obliged to declare personal assets at regular intervals. In addition, the anti-corruption body stressed the importance of introducing rules on lobbying and revolving doors.
On the same day, GRECO published the 2nd compliance report of the 3rd evaluation round on Bosnia and Herzegovina. This round covers incriminations of corruption offenses and transparency of party funding. GRECO noted that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made little progress since 2017 and called for further efforts to ensure the implementation of its recommendations.
On 28 February, GRECO published the 4th evaluation round compliance report on the Czech Republic, in which it concluded that the country did not satisfactorily implemented any of the recommendations on preventing corruption of parliamentarians, judges and prosecutors. Thus, GRECO urged the Czech authorities to take strong measures to instill a culture of integrity among the political class and to enhance trust in elected representatives.
On 25 February, in a joint statement issued at the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the President of GRECO and the President of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CPT) launched an appeal to Council of Europe’s member states to intensify their anti-corruption efforts, paying special attention to its consequences on persons deprived of liberty.
On 5 February, Tranparency International (TI) published a report on the lack of transparency in decision-making by the Eurogroup. The NGO made recommendations to improve the accountability and integrity of this informal body that plays a key role in the governance of the euro area. In particular, TI proposed the establishment of mandatory public hearings of the Eurogroup President before the European Parliament, and the introduction of a code of conduct as a common integrity safeguard.
On 8 February, while a directive on the protection of persons reporting on breaches of EU law was under consideration, Euronews devoted an article to the difficulties encountered by whistleblowers, such as Ana Garrido. The latter exposed practices of corruption within the People’s Party in Spain, giving rise to the Gürtel case. Ms. Garrido said she was subjected to many forms of intimidation and underlined the need to better support whistleblowers at the EU level.
On 13 February, the European Commission adopted a new list of 23 third countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks. As a result of the listing, the purpose of which is to protect the EU financial system, banks and other entities covered by EU rules will be required to apply increased checks on financial operations involving customers and institutions from these high-risk countries. The list includes Saudi Arabia, Panama, Nigeria and four US territories, among others.
On the same day, negotiators from the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission agreed to continue their discussions on moving towards a joint mandatory transparency register applicable to all lobbyists. Their aim is to achieve a political agreement between the three institutions as soon as possible.
On 25 February, Radio Free Europe revealed that the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman serves as a trainee with Aymeric Chauprade, a French MEP. The information was confirmed by Mr. Chauprade, a former member of the National Front. However, he denied that this recruitment posed any risk as regards conflicts of interest or European security.
On 26 February, candidates for the position of EU public prosecutor were heard by the European Parliament. Three candidates are in the running: the Frenchman Jean-François Bohnert, the Romanian Laura Kovesi and the German Andres Ritte. The Romanian authorities, currently chairing the EU Council, opposed the candidacy of the former head of the National Anticorruption Directorate, which was dismissed in July 2018 following government pressure. Nonetheless, MEPs supported Ms. Kovesi, recognizing her work at the service of public integrity.
On 4 February, Freedom House published its 2019 report on political rights and civil liberties in the world. Covering 195 countries and 14 territories, the report highlights that democracy is in retreat at the global level. Special attention was given to attacks on democratic institutions and the rule of law in the United States. According to the NGO, the administration of Donald Trump weakened safeguards against corruption and undermined the legitimacy of elections.
In the face of the challenges identified in its report, Freedom House made a number of recommendations. In particular, it advocated for measures to enhance the transparency of political financing and to prevent conflicts of interest among government officials. These measures are intended to enable better control over the influence of foreign actors on public decisions and national elections. Moreover, the NGO called for all states to implement sanctions against individuals and entities involved in corruption cases.
In an article published on 22 February, the NGO Accountability Lab reviewed the results of a survey on the impact of corruption on young people, led in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The survey, which focused on people aged between 18 and 34, found that the fight against corruption is considered a priority for this age group. Indeed, the Accountability Lab remarked that many innovative integrity initiatives are driven by politicians, journalists and activists from this generation.
On 16 February, thousands of people protested in Tirana. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama, whom they accuse of corruption and collusion with organized crime. On 21 February, opponents of Mr. Rama gathered again to demand his departure.
On 25 February, Gianni Alemanno, mayor of Rome from 2008 to 2013, was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption and a lifetime ban on holding public office. The former mayor was accused of having favored mafia-related persons in obtaining public contracts and positions in the municipal administration in exchange for several thousand euros in illegal payments.
On 26 February, the Court of Justice of the EU annulled the decision of suspending from office Mr. Ilmars Rimsevics, governor of the central bank of Latvia and member of the board of governors of the European Central Bank (ECB), who was charged for corruption in February 2018. The Court, which is competent to guarantee the independence of the governors of European central banks, considered that Latvian authorities did not provide sufficient evidence to justify the governor’s suspension.
On 20 February, twenty-six people were arrested, including eight judges and five lawyers, in a corruption investigation. Indeed, several magistrates are suspected of having received bribes in exchange for favorable decisions. The cases revealed in this investigation include decisions on the release of suspects and prosecution for corruption. The Attorney General deplored the seriousness of this scandal, which undermined public trust in the Lithuanian judicial system.
On 22 February, Arte reported on the Moldovan parliamentary elections which, with a high rate of abstention, were won by the Socialist Party of President Igor Dodon. It was noted that corruption cases dominate the political debate in this former Soviet republic and that, according to observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the election campaign was marked by allegations of pressures on civil servants and strong indications of vote buying and abuse of state resources. In this context, the local branch of Transparency International emphasized the importance of establishing effective anti-corruption authorities and criminal prosecution services.
On 11 February, Dmitry Gribov, a branch leader of the NGO Center for Countering Corruption in Government, was murdered in a town outside Moscow. According to his colleagues, the activist was attacked because of his anti-corruption activities.
On 21 February, tens of thousands of Slovaks gathered around the country to mark the first anniversary of the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend. Mr. Kuciak was killed while investigating the alleged links between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia, as well as fraud in EU agricultural funds. The murder provoked public outrage and led to the resignation of the Prime Minister in March 2018. One year after the crime, four people were indicted. Nevertheless, Reporters without Borders warned against political interference in the investigation, and called on authorities to ensure its full independence.
On 4 February, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a candidate in the presidential election on 31 March, accused President Petro Poroshenko of corruption. According to Ms. Tymoshenko, Mr. Poroshenko used his position to enrich himself, and his associates have attempted to buy votes to guarantee his reelection. The former Prime Minister stated that money has been offered to voters in exchange for their support, and asked the Interior Minister to investigate. Mr. Poroshenko’s office rejected the allegations.
On 6 February, as part of the work of the commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture, five people, suspected of embezzling 105 million euros, were arrested. The suspects, including an ex-CFO of the prison services and a former leader of the Bosasa security firm, were brought before a Pretoria court for bribery, money laundering and fraud.
On the same day, France Info reported that diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland allegedly sent a memo to President Cyril Ramaphosa in which they urged the South African government to take firm action against corruption. The memo, revealed by a British weekly, was strongly criticized. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) denounced an imperialist interference in the country’s internal affairs. The representatives of the states concerned asserted that they did not send any official document to any governmental entity, and that the memo in question, produced in an informal context, was intended to support South Africa’s investment drive.
On 23 February, in the run-up to the May legislative elections, Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, pledged to end corruption, which he associated with the ANC. In particular, Mr. Maimane committed to creating an anti-corruption unit composed of specialized prosecutors and investigators.
On 13 February, at the close of its 32nd summit in Addis Ababa, the African Union (AU) rewarded Ivory Coast for its progress in fighting corruption and promoting good governance. The prize was received by the Ivorian Vice President, who reiterated the government’s commitment to curb probity breaches. As a matter of fact, when the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index was released in January, Transparency International praised Ivory Coast’s efforts and the significant improvement of its score over the last six years.
On 5 February, France Info reported on the assassination of journalist Ahmed Husein last January. Mr. Husein was part of a group of investigative journalists, known as the “Tiger Eye”, which uncovered many cases of corruption in different sectors of Ghanaian society. The group pledged to continue its investigations despite attacks against its members.
On 27 February, the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari was confirmed by Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission. This announcement came at the end of a long electoral process, marked by the postponement of the vote, tensions, and concerns about public integrity. According to observers, Mr. Buhari’s commitment to combat corruption favored his victory, despite the mixed record of the measures implemented during his first term. The result of the election was disputed by the opposition.
On 2 February, La Tribune reported that Senegal volunteered for an evaluation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the transparency of its public finances. This decision is part of the Senegalese authorities’ efforts to open state budget data.
On 5 February, Zambian authorities announced the arrest of Ronald Chitotela, the Minister of Roads, following suspicions of corruption related to the acquisition of two properties. Mr. Chitotela is the first senior government official of President Edgar Lungu’s administration, who has been in power since 2015, to be arrested in a corruption investigation.
On 25 February, the National People’s Assembly adopted the bill amending and supplementing the law of 20 February 2006 on the prevention and fight against corruption. The text notably provides for the creation of a financial criminal division with national jurisdiction, and contains new provisions for the protection of whistleblowers. On this occasion, the Minister of Justice recalled the need to combine all efforts to effectively fight corruption. In particular, he pointed out that the text allows to strengthen citizens’ participation in the moralization of public life.
On 15 February, several French companies, including Renault Trucks, Legrand and Schneider Electric, were convicted on appeal for accepting overbilling in exchange for contracts awarded by Saddam Hussein’s regime, then subject to embargo. These companies were accused of bribery of foreign public officials.
On 28 February, after two years of investigation, Attorney General Avichaï Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This decision came in the middle of the electoral campaign, 40 days before the legislative elections of 9 April. Mr. Mandelblit offered Mr. Netanyahu the opportunity to explain himself at a hearing prior to his indictment. The Prime Minister, who is seeking his fifth term, denied the accusations decrying a political persecution orchestrated by the leftist opposition.
On 5 February, the magazine Tel Quel dedicated an article to the results of the anti-corruption hotline, a toll-free number launched by the Ministry of Justice in 2015 to allow citizens to report anonymously the acts of corruption of which they were victims. According to a report by the public prosecutor’s office, of the 19,168 accusation recorded by the number in 2018, only 62 were followed by an arrest. A number of factors explaining this assessment were mentioned, such as the fact that a large majority of calls do not concern corruption cases or the absence of evidence that could trigger criminal proceedings.
On 19 February, the Libyan Commission for the Prevention of Corruption announced that it referred to the Tunisian National Anti-Corruption Agency (INLUCC) 120 files on cases of corruption in the private sector. This referral is part of a desire to strengthen bilateral cooperation between the two anti-corruption authorities.
On 7 February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied press reports accusing his cabinet of pressuring former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould not to prosecute SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering and construction company involved in a corruption scandal in Libya. According to the press, Mr. Trudeau’s office asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould to intervene in this matter so that prosecutors would reach an amicable agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The conglomerate is suspected of fraud, and of paying several million euros in bribes to Libyan officials in exchange for public contracts.
On 11 February, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion opened an investigation into allegations of political interference in the SNC-Lavalin case. Mr. Trudeau indicated that he was in favor of the Commissioner’s decision.
On 12 February, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned as Minister of Veterans Affairs. She did not comment on the allegations of interference because of her obligation of professional secrecy. The opposition called on the government to lift this obligation. The resignation of the Minister was regretted by Mr. Trudeau.
On 18 February, Gerald Butts, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, resigned. Nevertheless, he rejected the claims against the Prime Minister’s office by assuring that he and the rest of the staff had always acted with integrity.
On 21 February, the Parliamentary Justice Committee began reviewing the allegations of interference related to the SNC-Lavalin case. During his testimony before the committee, Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, denied any political intervention in this judicial matter. In an article published on the same day, The Guardian noted that the scandal could cast a shadow over Mr. Trudeau’s domestic image of commitment to transparent government, potentially harming his electoral prospects.
On 6 February, at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attempted to demonstrate how easy it was to get around campaign finance laws in the United States. Her speech denouncing the flaws of the current legal framework was relayed by many media outlets. This sequence became the most-watched political video on Twitter, with about 40 million views.
On 19 February, the House of Representatives opened an inquiry into a proposed venture to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia. Senior officials of the Trump administration are suspected of actively defending the project while ignoring the ethical, legal and security risks posed by this technology transfer. In particular, concerns were raised about possible conflicts of interest involving Michael Flynn, the President’s former national security advisor, due to his ties with the nuclear industry.
On the same day, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) declined to certify the 2018 financial disclosure report from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. According to the OGE, the form was not accurate because, despite his ethical agreement, Mr. Ross did not divest stock in a bank.
On 22 February, the Justice Department announced the filing of complaints seeking the recovery of approximately 38 million dollars in assets allegedly obtained from corruption involving the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
The parliamentary hearing of Michael Cohen, the ex-lawyer of President Donald Trump, began on 27 February. Mr. Cohen, who is a prosecution witness in the investigation into suspicions of collusion between Russia and Mr. Trump’s campaign staff, stated that the president was a “cheater” and lied about a real estate project in Moscow. According to Mr. Cohen, his former client led the Trump organization’s negotiations on the project throughout his election campaign. Mr. Trump had repeatedly affirmed that neither he nor his associates were linked to Russian interests.
On 12 February, Mexican drug dealer Joaquín Guzmán, alias “El Chapo”, was found guilty on all ten criminal counts against him. His trial, which took place in the United States, exposed the corrupt practices of drug cartels. According to observers, this “systemic” corruption is one of the main obstacles to the fight against drug trafficking in Mexico.
On 18 February, the trial of former President Cristina Kirchner for favoritism in the awarding of public contracts was postponed until May because of the health condition of one of the judges concerned.
On 25 February, Ms. Kirchner appeared for the third time before Judge Claudio Bonadio as part of the investigation into the scandal of the “corruption notebooks”. She is accused of directing, with Nestor Kirchner, her late husband and former president, a system of bribes in exchange for public contracts. As in previous hearings, the former president refused to answer the magistrate’s questions. Ms. Kirchner, who is likely to be the opposition’s candidate in the upcoming presidential election, contended that she was the victim of political persecution.
On 4 February, Minister of Justice and Public Security Sergio Moro presented a series of measures to combat crime and corruption. According to the minister, the two phenomena are connected because organized crime use corruption to perpetuate impunity. These measures, which require the amendment of 14 laws, will still need to be approved by Congress.
On 6 February, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula”, who has been in prison since April 2018, was sentenced to 12 years and 11 months of imprisonment for bribery and money laundering in a second judiciary case. This new conviction is related to renovations funded by two construction firms in a property associated with the ex-president. The renovations were allegedly done in exchange for contracts with the state oil company Petrobras. Lula refuted the accusations.
On 18 February, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed Gustavo Bebianno, Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency. Former chairman of the government party, Mr. Bebianno is suspected of being involved in campaign funding irregularities and embezzlement of public funds. He denied any wrongdoing.
On 22 February, Transparency International (TI)’s Brazilian chapter argued that, in order to answer to Brazil’s continuous decline on the Corruption Perceptions Index, authorities need to carry out structural reforms. To this end, TI participated in the development of 70 legislative and regulatory proposals to improve the Brazilian system for preventing probity breaches.
On 7 February, several thousands of demonstrators demanded the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. The latter is suspected of corruption, and criticized for his mismanagement of public funds, which was exposed by a report of the Superior Court of Auditors. On 12 February, the protest intensified. Clashes took place between the police and demonstrators. Since the beginning of the mobilization, at least six people have been killed.
On 3 February, Nayib Bukele, a former mayor of the Salvadoran capital, won the presidential election. Mr. Bukele stood on an anti-corruption platform and campaigned on the slogan: “There is enough money when no one steals.”
On 5 February, the South China Morning Post devoted an article to “Zero Trust”, an artificial intelligence system designed to combat corruption in the Chinese public sector. This system is able to cross nearly 150 government databases, which allows it to draw maps of public officials’ social relations, to build models of behavior, and to monitor financial operations or land acquisitions. Despite being restricted to 30 counties and cities, “Zero Trust” helped to caught 8,721 government employees engaging in misconduct such as embezzlement, abuse of power, misuse of government funds and nepotism. However, the program was turned off following opposition from many public officials.
On 20 February, a military court sentenced a former chief of staff, General Fang Fenghui, to life imprisonment for corruption. This senior officer was found guilty of receiving and paying bribes. His conviction is part of the anti-corruption campaign led by President Xi Jinping.
On 18 February, a court in the Maldives ordered the arrest and detention of former President Abdulla Yameen on suspicion of corruption and money laundering. He is accused of receiving 1 million dollars of public funds through a private firm.